Why Cross-Functional Teams Are the Future

Cross-functional collaboration is a fast-growing method to combat sluggish bureaucracy and outdated silos. Find out how to build a cross-functional team to achieve goals and drive results.

What are cross-functional teams?

To put it simply, a cross-functional team is a group of people with different skill sets from different departments who come together to collaborate on a single objective. Cross-functional collaboration is an alternative strategy to siloed departments, which are more traditional in the workplace. Marketing works on producing leads, Sales is focused on converting, Product is busy developing new concepts, and top-level executives are strategizing and setting the objectives for everyone. In the past, this approach has worked well for many organizations. Each department had its function and team members shared skill sets and a common focus.

But with increasing demands for agility and fast turnaround times, the need for effective collaboration between departments is undeniable. Imagine you’re a marketing manager, and you’re planning a campaign for which you need social media content, graphics, blog articles, and multichannel promotion. Broken down step-by-step, this marketing planrequires several external stakeholders: Product determines what exactly is being promoted, design is needed for the graphics, PR needs to be made aware of the campaign to include in their outreach, Sales should drive conversion, and Customer Success confirms if customers were delivered what Marketing promised. But all of these departments have their own objectives, and they don’t always align with each other, causing blockers and delays.

Now picture this: you’re a marketing manager on the Summer Campaign team. Your job is to map out the marketing campaign plan and track its progress. On your team is a product specialist ironing out the specifics for the promoted release, a graphic designer solely focused on creating imagery for the campaign, a PR specialist who is responsible for external outreach and media promotion, a salesperson to drive leads down the sales funnel, and a customer success manager who provides a tailored customer experience.

The first scenario is an example of the inefficiencies caused by siloed departments. The second scenario is a relatively new solution to the issues of the first: cross-functional team collaboration.

Siloing used to be the norm and still is in many cases. With the emergence of new work, however, companies are looking for ways to improve collaboration between teams and facilitate agile working. And agile working paved the way for cross-functional collaboration, an approach to problem-solving in which workers from different industries come together to work towards a common goal.

More and more organizations are implementing cross-functional teams in an effort to reduce inefficiencies and fast-track certain projects or high-level goals. Now, instead of projects being passed along to external stakeholders and put on roadmaps that aren’t aligned, causing frequent blockers and delays, entire teams are devoted to solving one problem or dedicated to one project at a time. So what exactly does this look like?

How to build a cross-functional team

Cross-functional teams can either be flexible, temporary teams created for specific projects or to solve a certain problem, or they can be the foundation of your organization’s structure. They can consist of single representatives of different departments, or multiple specialists working as a mini-team within the group. This also includes variations in seniority levels: It could be a team of high-level execs or a group of mid-level managers and supporting juniors. The make-up of a cross-functional team is entirely dependent on the set goal.

1. Establish an objective

To build an effective cross-functional team, you need to start with the objective. What problem needs to be solved? What is the end objective? What exactly is needed to get there? What skills are required? What are the parameters? For a cross-functional team to be successful, your goals should be outcome rather than output-oriented. Outline the project thoroughly to decide which team members would be the most relevant stakeholders and determine the project scope. If your cross-functional team will be a permanent fixture in your organization, it might be necessary to have a team lead or manager who can maintain accountability.

2. Facilitate communication

Once you’ve chosen the members of your cross-functional team, you need to create a communication plan. Your team members are all coming from different backgrounds, so they may have different expectations of communication within the team. Set up a plan for check-ins, brainstorms, progress updates, and goal tracking to establish team transparency and accountability. To avoid an onslaught of time-consuming meetings, try using a software solution like Collato to facilitate smooth cross-functional collaboration.

3. Stay agile

Agility is at the heart of cross-functionality. Teams need to be able to quickly switch directions or find a new approach if milestones aren’t being met. These units need to be flexible in how they reach their goals, and willing to try new ideas. That’s the whole point of putting such diverse team members together as one unit–to incorporate different viewpoints to quickly find the best way to solve a problem or provide a service.

Bring your team together around goals

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Tennessee native Catherine is passionate about all things Future of Work: From insights on goal management to navigating the world of New Work, Catherine’s got it covered.

Examples of cross-functional teams

Perhaps the most famous example of cross-functional teams in agile structures can be seen at Amazon headquarters. In an effort to combat slow-moving bureaucracy, Amazon underwent an agile transformation that focused on customer experience. The need for flexibility, speed, and high-quality service meant that teams needed more autonomy to achieve goals faster. Instead of getting bogged down by meetings and coordination points, Amazon established autonomous, agile teams which focused on particular services.

You can find another example of a successful agile model with cross-functional teams at Zalando, Europe’s leading online fashion retailer. Taking a similar approach to Amazon, Zalando moved away from departmental logic. Instead, they established cross-functional teams with service-related focuses, pulling all the experts into one unit. For example, one team is devoted entirely to size-related returns, working together to reduce such returns, create better size recommendations, etc.

In other examples, the scale of the company can determine whether cross-functionality already exists. Smaller companies, like startups, for example, might see themselves as working as a single unit simply due to their size. But as these companies grow, they can maintain cross-functional collaboration by grouping employees together around problems and services rather than departments.

Potential downsides to cross-functional teams

In some instances, cross-functional teams will not be as effective. It’s crucial that employees understand how cross-functionality works and are comfortable with autonomous decision-making. It’s also important to be aware that since these teams often have flat hierarchies, people may assume that professional development is limited. To avoid stagnation and decreasing motivation, some organizations rotate group members in and out of teams. However, this can also cause issues if people feel disconnected.

Since diversity is the foundation of cross-functi1onal teams, it’s also necessary to ensure that members feel free and safe to express their viewpoints, even if they have less experience than other members. Team-building activities and communication workshops can facilitate productive engagement and a team connection.

Make it count

Establishing cross-functional teams can eliminate micromanaging, instill autonomy in employees, decrease turnaround time, and streamline work processes. But in order to work effectively, objectives must be clearly defined with outcome-oriented goals, and communication structures must be in place to ensure that team members feel safe, supported, and trusted. When done right, cross-functional collaboration can motivate employees and unite teams around shared goals.

Learn more about cross-functional collaboration

FAQs

What is cross-team collaboration?
Cross-team collaboration, or cross-departmental collaboration, maintains the traditional hierarchy of siloed organizations but incorporates communication and shared goals between separate teams.
What is cross-functional collaboration?
Cross-functional collaboration is when one unit comprised of team members from diverse departments comes together to work on achieving a set objective, providing a particular service, or solving a certain problem.
How are cross-functional teams built?
Cross-functional teams should be composed of a flat hierarchy of workers from different departments with diverse skills. These units should be wholly autonomous and not need input from any other team or department. In order to assemble such a team successfully, a clearly-defined outcome should be set. Agility and flexibility are essential, so that when milestones aren’t met, teams can quickly adapt and change direction.
How does one lead a cross-functional team?
Leaders aren’t always necessary for cross-functional teams, but it could be beneficial to have someone who structures communication of the group, guides discussions, delegates tasks and holds everyone accountable. However, this person doesn’t necessarily have authority or seniority over any other team member.